On the heels of Seattle’s stunning Super Bowl victory over Denver, and in the week leading up to 18 televised nights of the Sochi Winter Games, it seems like a good time to think about one of life’s great ironies.
In some ways religion and the games we play seem like a strange pairing. But who can deny the ever-present mix of superstition and spirituality that shows up not only in the religious section of the news, but also on the global face of sport.
As a young boy, in the early days of television, I remember watching boxer’s make the sign of the cross as they came out of their corners on the Friday night fights. During those same years, I remember a quote displayed in big letters high on the gymnasium wall of the first school I attended: “When the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, he writes- not that you won or lost— but how you played the Game. ”
Many years later, time hasn’t diminished my sense of the sport gods who, at the very least, seem to show up to jinx announcers who love to keep track of an athlete’s errorless play. Grown ups still huddle to pray before a game. Victors thank heaven when they win— while losers find the perceived meaning of their lives shaken and clarified by a defeat.
Yet as easy as it might be to laugh off the foolishness of religion and sport, it would probably be wise to acknowledge the possibility that God himself has an interest in the games. Maybe the games even have a place in general revelation. Isn’t it all too obvious that all of the issues of our lives, including our reluctant, mysterious reliance upon our Creator, show up in the ecstasies of our victories and the agonies of our defeats—even on the playing field?
Could that be why the Apostle Paul was not afraid to associate spirituality with first century Greek games? (1Cor 9:24-27)
Today on the threshold of the Sochi Winter Olympics, we look forward to being inspired as young men and women, from every nation of the world, come together in the closest thing to peace we know. Yes, there’s the nationalism, the pursuit of gold, the effort to be first at a competitor’s loss. But somewhere in the mix there is also a reminder that there is something about life that deserves our complete and total effort. There’s a battle to be fought. Rules to be kept. Honor to be sought. And an outcome that is both within and beyond our control.
At the very least maybe this will be a time to remember that the games are a reminder that we are all being called to give our hearts to something and Someone who may one day show us that what was most important was not whether we won or lost—but how we played the game.
Just recently I learned the source of that quote. Coach Wooden of the UCLA Bruins attributes it to a 20th century sports writer by the name of Grantland Rice— who is remembered for more than his words. According to Wikipedia, before leaving for the service in World War I, Mr. Rice entrusted his life-savings of about $75,000 to a friend. After the war, he learned that his friend had not only lost all of the money in bad investments, but that he had taken his own life in shame. Rice, reportedly felt personally responsible for putting “that much temptation” in his friend’s hands. He made monthly contributions to the man’s widow for the next 30 years.
We may never know what motivated Mr. Rice to show such honor and compassion. But his words may give us a clue… and remind us… that even the games we play can tell us a lot about life.